Ukraine has shelled and killed its own civilians, Russia says, after some non-combatants who had taken shelter in Mariupol’s besieged steel plant finally made their way to safety.
The claim comes as a senior Russian diplomat strongly hinted that the Kremlin could authorise the use of nuclear weapons against nuclear-armed Western nations supporting the embattled Kyiv government.
Moscow has turned its focus to Ukraine’s south and east after failing to capture the capital Kyiv in a nine-week assault that has flattened cities, killed thousands of civilians and forced more than five million people to flee abroad.
Its forces have captured the town of Kherson, giving them a foothold just 100 kilometres north of Russian-annexed Crimea, and have mostly occupied Mariupol, the strategic eastern port city on the Azov Sea.
Russia’s defence ministry accused Ukraine’s forces of shelling a school, kindergarten and cemetery in the villages of Kyselivka and Shyroka Balka in the Kherson region, the Russian RIA news agency said on Sunday.
The Russian foreign ministry’s head of nuclear non-proliferation says nuclear-armed Western powers are facing ‘severe consequences’ in a veiled threat of an arms escalation.
Vladimir Yermakov told the Russian Tass news agency late Saturday that nuclear war should never be unleashed, and that Russia is clearly following understandings between nuclear powers to prevent it.
Mr Yermakov cited an international agreement pledging to seek to avoid nuclear war, saying that the risks of such conflict “must be minimised, in particular, by preventing any armed conflict between nuclear powers”.
But he said the Western nuclear “troika” [of United States, Britain and France] were “slipping into other positions”, as was Nato in “positioning itself as a nuclear alliance”.
“Such ‘balancing on the brink’ is fraught with the most serious consequences,” he said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last week warned the West not to underestimate the risks of nuclear conflict.
Senior US defence officials maintains the US does not believe there is a threat of Russia using nuclear weapons.
The ominous warning came as Russia accused Ukraine of attacking the the border region of Kursk, while the Ukrainian military says a Russian strike damaged the Odessa airport runway.
A Russian missile strike at the airport in the southwestern port of Odessa – a city that has so far been relatively unscathed in the war – has damaged the runway and it can no longer be used, the Ukrainian military said early Sunday.
Russia has sporadically targeted Odessa, a Black Sea port, and a week ago Ukraine said at least eight people were killed in a strike on the city.
“As a result of a missile attack in the Odessa region, the runway at Odessa airport was damaged. Its further use is impossible,” the Ukrainian military said.
There was no immediate word on the strike from the Russian military.
Russian forces also pounded Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region on Saturday.
In the town of Dobropillia in Donetsk, the shockwave from a strike blew in the windows of an apartment building and left a large crater in the yard.
Rain of missiles
One resident, who gave only his first name of Andriy, said his partner was in a room facing the yard at the time of the attack and was knocked unconscious.
“Thank God the four children were in the kitchen,” he said, standing in the destroyed living room.
Residents sifted through their belongings to see what could be salvaged.
“At around 9.20am this happiness flew to our house,” said Oleh, who also gave only his first name, speaking with sarcasm.
“Everything is destroyed.”
Russia hopes to take full control of the eastern Donbas region made up of Luhansk and Donetsk, parts of which were already controlled by Russian-backed separatists before the invasion.
The General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces said in a daily update that the Russian forces were trying to capture the areas of Lyman in Donetsk and Sievierodonetsk and Popasna in Luhansk, adding they are “not succeeding – the fighting continues”.
The war since February 24 has turned cities to rubble, killed thousands and forced five million Ukrainians to flee abroad.
While there have been efforts since the start of the war to hold peace talks, the two sides are far apart – which was illustrated by conflicting comments on the efforts by senior Russian and Ukrainian officials on Saturday.
Mr Lavrov, in remarks published on the Russian foreign ministry’s website, said lifting foreign sanctions on Russia was part of the talks but senior Ukrainian negotiator Mykhailo Podolyak denied this was the case.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has insisted since the Russian invasion that sanctions needed to be strengthened and could not be part of negotiations.
He said on Saturday there was a high risk the talks would end because of what he called Russia’s “playbook on murdering people”.
Ukraine accuses Russian troops of atrocities in areas near Kyiv that they previously occupied. Russia denies the claims.
Lavrov said that if the United States and other NATO countries were truly interested in ending the war, they should stop sending weapons to Ukraine.
French President Emmanuel Macron told Zelensky during a call on Saturday that his country would step up military and humanitarian support for Ukraine.
Russia said on Saturday its artillery units had struck 389 Ukrainian targets overnight.
Alexander Bogomaz, the governor of Russia’s Bryansk region, said air defences had prevented a Ukrainian aircraft from entering the region, and as a result shelling had hit parts of an oil terminal, Russian news agencies reported.
The governor of another Russian region, Kursk, said several shells were fired from the direction of Ukraine on Saturday at a checkpoint near its border.
Roman Starovoit said in a video on his Telegram channel that there were no casualties or damage.
Russia’s TASS news agency, reporting from the scene, said 25 civilians, including six children, had left the territory of the Azovstal steel plant in the besieged southern port of Mariupol on Saturday.
It was unclear where they had gone and Reuters could not independently verify the report.
Ukraine carried out a prisoner exchange with Russia on Saturday, with seven soldiers and seven civilians coming home, deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk said in a online post.
She did not say how many Russians had been transferred.